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Tuesday, 03 March 2015 00:00

WNC women call for passage of Equal Rights Amendment

Written by Beth Walton | Citizens-Times

Roberta Madden wants to live to see the day the Equal Rights Amendment is added to the U.S. Constitution. At 78, the Black Mountain resident fears she is running out of time.

"It's amazing to think how long I have been working on this — since 1972," said Madden, who retired as director of racial and social justice at the YWCA in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, seven years ago.

"The problem is no one knows what the ERA is, or they think it has already passed," she said.

Ninety-two years after the landmark legislation was first introduced in Congress, some Western North Carolina women say it's time to again try to win state support to ratify the ERA, an effort planned for this General Assembly session.

"We have a legacy of discrimination," said Madden, who is the co-director of Ratify ERA-NC.

Women continue to make less money than their male counterparts, Madden said, and workplace discrimination complaints have been on the rise.

Madden was part of a group of nearly 100 women, many from Western North Carolina, who went to Raleigh Feb. 23 for Women's Advocacy Day.

Through snow canceled many activities, pro-ERA legislators announced plans to win passage of a bill to ratify the federal amendment.

If they are successful, North Carolina would be the first state in the Southeast to back the ERA. The Virginia Senate earlier this month voted to ratify the ERA. The chamber has approved the measure repeatedly in recent years, only to see it killed in the House of Delegates.

"This is still something we can do," said North Carolina state Sen. Terry Van Duyn, D-Buncombe, a Senate bill co-sponsor. "If we get the additional states to ratify, we can actually move this forward."

The state General Assembly last considered legislation to ratify the ERA in 1982.

The amendment's proponents want to add the words "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex" to the U.S. Constitution.

"Women are a vital part of North Carolina's economy, making up 47 percent of the workforce," said state Rep. Susan Fisher, D-Buncombe, who is co-sponsoring House legislation. "Yet, women continue to earn less than men at every educational level, and nearly 1 in 5 women in North Carolina live in poverty."

Madden and others rallied in Raleigh just one day after actress Patricia Arquette called for wage equality and equal rights for women while accepting an Oscar. Media outlets nationwide ran photos of celebrities Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez shouting, "Yes!"

In December, hackers revealed a pay gap between men and women on Sony Pictures' payroll — one female executive was making nearly $1 million less than her male counterpart.

The problem goes beyond Hollywood. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show women overall earn 82.1 percent of what men do. The gap widens as women get older and enter their child-bearing years.

High profile cases such as the 2014 Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which allowed businesses to decline to offer insurance coverage for birth control under religious objection, also have revived interest in passing the constitutional amendment.

It's not just equal pay, Van Duyn said. It is things like health care, child care subsidies and family leave time, anything that would allow a woman to be active in the workplace and still take care of her family, she said.

"Women's issues for me are family issues," Van Duyn said.

Charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Fair Employment Practices Agencies alleging pregnancy discrimination in the workplace increased by nearly 47 percent from 1997 through 2011, the last year in which states and the federal government reported numbers together.

Companies are pushing pregnant workers out of the workforce acting on outdated stereotypes that a woman's income is irrelevant, Ariela Migdal, an attorney and senior staff member for the American Civil Liberties Union's Women's Rights Project in New York City, said in January.

The ERA would address pay inequity, workplace discrimination and violence against women, said Jessica Neuwirth, a graduate of Harvard Law School who worked as director of the New York office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and founded Equality Now, an international women's rights organization.

Despite their ongoing efforts, legislators and activists fear their work will be futile, doubting the bill will make it out of committee.

Opponents argue additional protections are unnecessary and the law would add layers of bureaucracy costly to businesses and unattractive to potential employers.

"The ERA is very problematic," said state Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell. "Most people are committed to seeing that individuals receive equal pay for equal work, but creating another layer of legal bureaucracy is not in the interest of the state or its employers."

State Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, is co-sponsoring the bill in the Senate.

"It's hard to imagine this is something that should even be debated," he said. "It is so far beyond comprehension that we are actually debating that women deserve equal rights in 2015."

The history

Congress passed the ERA in the early 1970s, but after 10 years of lobbying, the amendment fell three states short of ratification.

At the 1982 deadline, the ERA had been ratified by 35 states — just short of the 3/4 needed to add it to the Constitution.

Lawmakers have since reintroduced the ERA in every session of Congress to no avail.

Polls continually show bipartisan, widespread support for constitutional protection of women's rights, but the Supreme Court has denied claims of sex discrimination by women, said Neuwirth, who published the book "Equal Means Equal: Why the Time for an Equal Rights Amendment Is Now" this year.

"The law is insufficient," she said. "Women have tried again and again to get the courts to remedy their situation and their cases have been thrown out and they haven't been able to get justice," she said.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia made waves in 2010 when he said the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment does not protect against discrimination on the basis of gender or sexual orientation.

Neuwirth started the ERA Coalition last year as part of a renewed effort to see the ERA's passage.

Backers have two main strategies at the federal level, Neuwirth said. One is to introduce new legislation. Another is to repeal the deadline from the original amendment and get three more states to ratify it.

The ERA Coalition supports both approaches, but the three-state move could be seen as a shortcut to quicker action, she said.

The ERA is a constitutional tool that will give women the protection they need to create the social changes they have been pushing for since the 1960s, said Sherrie McLendon, president of the Asheville chapter of the National Organization for Women.

Throughout history, legislation such as the Civil Rights Act has been passed to protect people as a whole, but the ERA will protect women specifically, said Sandra Abromitis, a member of the Asheville contingent of North Carolina Women United. It will address state regulatory issues limiting access to reproductive health care, fair wages and educational opportunities.

The ERA is the "umbrella of protection" that should be a part of the U.S. Constitution, Fisher said. "Many citizens mistakenly believe that it has already been passed, when in fact in this contemporary day and time, women do not have the equality under the Constitution that would afford them the basic rights that men have enjoyed since before the Constitution was written."

State Rep. Carla Cunningham, D-Mecklenburg, is a primary sponsor of the bill in the House.

"I believe 2016 is going to be the year of the women," she said. "Even though we are starting the push now, we know it probably won't happen this time, but at least it is on the minds of women across the state."

Cries of discrimination

Madden acknowledges the world has changed significantly since the bill was first introduced in 1923.

Initially, arguments against the ERA included that it would prevent husbands from supporting their wives, invade privacy, and lead to abortion, homosexual marriage, women in combat and unisex bathrooms.

Many of these things are a non-issue, today, she said, but that doesn't mean sexism is a thing of the past.

If women are paid less, that affects their retirement, their savings and their social security, Madden said.

Women are still not taken as seriously as men are in the workforce, Van Duyn added. "Men are still perceived as the "breadwinner" when in fact that's not the whole story. Women are supporting their families, as well. It's a fairness issue, too. Equal pay for equal work is pretty simple."

A record 40 percent of all households with children include mothers who are either the sole or primary source of income for the family, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Further, increased regulations on women's health care in recent years — specifically the fact the women of Western North Carolina are currently without an abortion provider — speaks to the hostile legislative climate for women, said McLendon.

"The idea that I am considered less of a citizen than a man is untenable to me and I do not accept it," she said. "It may be legal, but it is wrong."

The opposition

Hise, the Republican state senator from Mitchell, doesn't shy away from discussing his opposition to the ERA. He says his argument is pro-business, not anti-women.

Passing the ERA is not in the best interest of the state or its women, he said. Doing so will add additional layers of legal bureaucracy. More lawsuits will increase the cost of doing business in North Carolina and will deter employers from investing here.

Kit Cramer, the female president of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, said she had no comment on the issue. "It's not even on our radar," she said.

The 19th Amendment, which allowed women the right to vote, gave them equal standing, Hise said. "We have equality in our nation. We have outcomes that have not achieved equality the way we would want them to, but I do not think inequality exists."

"We've never had a nation that strives for an equality of outcomes," he said. "Individuals are free to achieve and move forward."

McKissick doesn't buy the argument of increased costs to corporations, but said even if that is a factor, it is the sort of cost that society should be able to bear. "They could have used the same economic arguments for slavery, too," he said.

"I would hope we could find people on both sides of this aisle that could understand that this is intrinsically a good idea and it is important as a matter of principle that these rights be bestowed to all Americans without exception to their gender."

The call to action

Many activists say the ERA's success is dependent on women.

"Women out vote men in North Carolina," Cunningham said. "They literally hold the future of the state because they do vote and they vote regularly," she said.

Madden also argues that women need to speak truth to power. "The most important thing women need to do is talk to their legislators, one on one. Find them in Raleigh or back home, or just get on the phone and talk," she said. "If they don't hear from women, they aren't going to know how important this issue is."

There is one more solution, added Madden, who is concerned about the world in which her granddaughter will grow up. Every generation of men and women can embrace the notion of feminism and fight for what is right, she said.

"My mother made me a feminist," said Madden, recalling the time when as a young girl she heard her mom talk about being passed over for a promotion at work. My mother complained the position was given to a less qualified man, she said.

"She wasn't bitter about it. She just said, 'Oh, that's the way it is.' But, it kind of lit a fire in me," Madden said.

"A feminist is anyone who will stand up for equal rights for men and women and boys and girls," she added. "That's not so hard. I think most people favor that. My son is a feminist. My husband, too."

Link to original article from the Citizens-Times

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